Monday, March 22, 2010


Healthcare fight was Obama's proving ground

The president chose a goal and held to it steadfastly. Now he must build on that momentum.

Rarely does a president bet everything on a single card, but Barack Obama did it on healthcare. Almost from the beginning, the White House was guided by one priority: Nothing must get in the way of healthcare. Everything else would have to wait.

Sunday night, the president who was criticized for winning a Nobel Prize without much of a record finally won a signature achievement -- victory on the kind of massive healthcare overhaul that Democrats had sought and failed to achieve for nearly half a century.

In the months ahead, Obama will face the question of whether his healthcare victory is a high-water mark for a now-exhausted administration, or instead becomes the leaping-off point for victories on other big issues, such as energy, immigration and financial regulation.

But what became clear in the healthcare debate is that Obama is a president with a combative stubbornness, one that was not often visible in his cool, above-the-fray public demeanor. And he has demonstrated that a president who picks a goal, adopts a battle plan and sticks with it, come what may, is not easy to knock out.

In the 14 months of the healthcare fight, Obama saw his popularity plunge 20 percentage points. Voters, whipsawed by high unemployment, lost savings and the other ravages of a devastating recession, boiled over in anger at a president seeming obsessed with his own priorities.

From the beginning, GOP strategists saw the healthcare debate as a chance to cripple Obama's presidency. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) cast the stakes in military terms, predicting that a defeat would be Obama's "Waterloo."

In perhaps the White House's darkest hour, Obama suffered a stinging rebuke -- and lost the Democrats' filibuster-proof Senate majority -- when Massachusetts spurned a last-minute presidential appeal and gave the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's seat to a Republican in a special election dominated by healthcare.

Yet if Obama wavered, it was only briefly. Even some Democrats counseled him to drop the attempt at massive change and settle for smaller healthcare goals. Although he toyed with the idea at least once, in the end he held fast.

And while he was criticized even within his own party for delegating to Congress the early shaping of the healthcare bill, Obama mobilized in the weeks after Republican Scott Brown won the special election in Massachusetts.

From that day, it was clear that the endgame for Obama would come in the House of Representatives. He fought with a combination of tactics that played to his strength -- campaigning -- but also required a skill that was less tested -- negotiating.

On both fronts, he showed a level of pragmatism that frustrated some of his most liberal and idealistic supporters -- a willingness to trade a perfect bill for a somewhat less ambitious one that could pass.

Exploiting the bully pulpit, he traveled to places like St. Charles, Mo., and Cleveland, and exhorted rank-and-file supporters with the rhetoric he honed during his 2008 campaign. He invited both Democrats and Republicans to a televised healthcare "summit" -- notable not for any breakthrough accomplishment but for underscoring just how far apart the Democrats and Republicans were on the issue.

As late as Saturday, he traveled to Capitol Hill to lead a rally of House Democrats.

In between such events, he and his aides tirelessly lobbied fence-sitting members of the House.

Obama bluntly told skeptical members that for his presidency to be strong, he needed them to pass the bill.
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